The inimitable architecture and food critic revels in language and sardonic wit at the Crescent Arts Centre
Tonight at the Crescent Arts Centre sees an evening of conversation with Jonathan Meades: author, iconoclast, architectural critic, ex-food critic and constant cultural commentator. He's a lot of people to fit into the modest confines of the Cube.
He's not wearing the baggy, black utilitarian suit and shades combo he wears on the telly, where he resembles a proselytising Blues Brother. Rather, he's suavely donnish in jeans and two-tone brogues, his glasses worn around his neck on a chain like Larry Grayson's. His manner is different too. He looks slightly alarmed to be here, blind under the bright lights and unable to see his congregation.
He is interviewed tonight by a bearded and twinkling Marcus Hatton, presiding over proceedings like a benign hedge. During his introduction he refers to chapters in Meades' new memoir, An Encyclopaedia of Myself, as being 'random' and his chapter titles 'odd'.
There is a visible frisson from Meades, who holds Hatton with a baleful eye for a moment. But he shrugs it off and reads from his first prepared piece and instantly we're into some classic Meadesian (if that's the word) pedantry: a roll-call of names from a chapter of the same, er, name.
'I made lists. Why were people called Salmon, Pike, Gudgeon, Whiting, Chubb, Grayling, Roach, Haddock, Sprat, Bass? But not Tench, Minnow, Eel, Lamprey, Perch, Carp, Huss, Plaice.' He reads in his television voice: posh, solid and avowedly no-nonsense, like an antiquarian Lord of the Manor.
He continues in this vein for some time. 'I was adjudged tiresome or frivolous or time wasting. Thus adults masked their ignorance and, worse, their incuriosity. My obsessive insistence on the acquisition of what was deemed useless knowledge was a goading reproach to them.'
He hasn't much changed – Indeed, this would seem to be Meades' raison d'être. He's still the stubborn little boy asking awkward questions and demanding equally awkward knowledge. The cracks between good taste and common knowledge are the things that he is interested in.
The book's title is deliberately misleading, he explains: it isn't about him, rather he is a point of departure. The book is about the vanished world of his parent's generation, who 'won the war but lost the peace' and the sourness, deprivation and bitterness he noted in the post-bellum people who populated his childhood.
Meades – something of a gourmand and the restaurant reviewer for The Times for 15 years – ascribes this bitterness to the fact that everybody drank beer and spirits and not enough people drank wine!
Asked whether the book is nostalgic, Meades is quick to make a distinction between literal nostalgia – 'a yearning for a lost home... and there's nothing wrong with that' – and the nostalgia industry as 'a generalised yesterday we did not enjoy or suffer'. His conversation is peppered with such delightfully turned phrases.
He chucks handfuls of pearls before us throughout the evening, his descriptive language always surprising and often rather repulsive: he describes the process of houses being built over what were previously large gardens 'like a verruca working inwards rather than a wart working inwards'. He even admits that he 'almost seeks out disgusting things, decrepitude in buildings and people'.
This is made manifest in the gallery of grotesques who pop up in An Encyclopedia of Myself like boils. Meades has a Dickensian gift for turning these gurning monsters into living, breathing people, their breath tainted from halitosis and cheap cigars. Above all his writing is very funny and the audience is frequently hoots with laughter as he reads.
He seems slightly unnerved by the question and and answer session at the end, which does seem prolix, and a lot of the questions are batted away with one word answers – 'Have you thought of going into politics?' No.' Then there are the lengthy pauses, as he struggles to find further answers.
It doesn't matter, however, he has already given one of the most engaging and laugh out loud funny readings I've seen in many years, and a triumphant evening for the Crescent Arts Centre.
Visit the Crescent Arts Centre website for information on forthcoming events.